How the Rockets are rewriting modern offensive rules on their own terms
MIAMI — Trailing by two with less than nine minutes to play against the Heat last week, the Rockets inbounded the ball to James Harden, spread the floor as wide as possible, and simply watched him do this to a pretty good defender in Justise Winslow:
From that play forward, Harden, who finished with 41, and Chris Paul, who added 24, scored 18 of Houston’s final 22 points, and on those eight possessions only one other Rocket touched the ball after it crossed halfcourt — that was Nene, who held it for less than a second after he caught an inbounds pass before he handed it back to Harden for a three. Houston would go on to beat the Heat 109-101.
In a league that has become ball-movement drunk, and thus turned “isolation” into a dirty word, the Rockets indeed have their own kind of science. They don’t care about passing, at least not on a macro level. Entering Sunday, they ranked 29th in the league in passes per game, and 22nd in assists. Furthermore, more than 31 percent of Harden’s possessions, and over 28 percent of Paul’s, are isolations, which are the two highest marks in the league.
This, of course, goes against most modern basketball principles, to rely so heavily on individual talent, but Harden and Paul are hardly typical talents. Along with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, and perhaps Russell Westbrook and Paul George, they are one of the truly elite NBA tandems.
Interestingly, the Thunder subscribe to the same isolation ideology as the Rockets. It doesn’t work as well because, in these situations, Westbrook and George aren’t nearly as effective as Harden and Paul, who are the league’s two most efficient iso scorers among players with at least 40 such possessions. Also, Oklahoma City doesn’t have the collective shooting that Houston does — with marksmen like Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and even the newly-signed Gerald Green, often turning one-pass possessions into three points.
“We do have great iso players [in Paul and Harden], but at the same time, they’re great passers, too,” Ariza told CBS Sports. “We get a lot of possessions [with our pace], and over the course of a game we [as shooters] still get a lot of good looks at the basket. When we get them, we’re just aggressive.”
Aggressive would be an understatement. Entering Monday, the Rockets have made 870 3-pointers, by far the highest total in the league and over 200 more than the Warriors. Golden State, of course, is the virtual polar opposite of Houston in its egalitarian offensive approach, resisting the temptation to play entirely through Durant and Curry (which they clearly could do) in favor of more inclusivity. Golden State, as a result, is first in the league in assists and third in passes per game.
By contrast, Houston has no illusions about where its bread is buttered. Harden leads the league in usage rate, and both he and Paul possess the ball for more time per touch (well over five seconds each) than either Curry or Durant do, on average, over an entire possession. When Harden and Paul are not sizing up a defender in isolation, they are working the pick-and-roll like — as Mike D’Antoni referred to them in Miami — “assassins.”
It’s an apt comparison in that Harden and Paul work best alone, and they’re willing to wait as long as necessary for the perfect shot to make their kill. Again, this is particularly true out of the pick-and-roll, where they’ll keep their dribble alive for what feels like an eternity, manipulating coverages and re-initiating the screen action until they finally get the switch, and matchup, they desire, which typically means a big being forced out onto the perimeter to play them one on one. Then, it’s lights out.
“It’s a personnel thing,” D’Antoni told CBS Sports. “We’ve got two of the best iso players in the league. If it wasn’t working, we would try more passes. But it’s been pretty effective for us.”
Again, this is a gigantic understatement. Entering Sunday, the Rockets ranked not just as the best offense in the league this season (per Cleaning the Glass), but as the best offense in NBA history, per Basketball Reference, at 115.8 points per 100 possessions.
To be fair, Houston isn’t the only successful offensive team that doesn’t prioritize perfunctory passing. Minnesota ranks third in offensive efficiency but just 21st in passes per game. Toronto ranks fourth in offense but 19th in passes per game. Cleveland ranks fifth in offense but 27th in passes per game, largely because LeBron James is one of the only players that can be talked about in the same breath as Harden and Paul in terms of isolation effectiveness.
The question will be: Can this work in the playoffs? In the past, we’ve seen a team like the Raptors enjoy regular-season success largely on the creative backs of two individual players in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but when the playoffs roll around, that becomes a much harder burden to carry when teams start game planning specifically to force the ball out of those players’ hands.
Houston is banking on the belief that it wasn’t the Raptors’ system that failed them in the past, necessarily, and that indeed an iso-heavy offense can thrive if the players at the head of the attack happen to be no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famers. For all the advanced statistics everyone loves so much these days, for all the paper evaluating we do, there’s an old basketball rule that keeps things pretty simple: If you’re doing something the defense wants you to do, you’re probably doing the wrong thing.
Make no mistake, defenses want Harden and Paul to give up the ball. Every time someone other than those two takes a single dribble, it’s a win for the defense. The Rockets are not in the business of bailing anyone out. If you’re going to beat them, they’re going to force you to take their best punch possession after possession after possession. So far, nobody’s been able to do that.
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